South Florida: More than Just a Vacation Spot

Diplomat Resort & Spa, Fort Lauderdale

Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Palm Beach boast upgraded meeting facilities

For many people, South Florida means one thing—vacation. The area’s semitropical climate, fabulous beaches, superb resorts, easy accessibility and natural attractions such as the Everglades draw millions of visitors from around the world to enjoy its pleasures. In recent years, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and the Palm Beaches have worked hard to prove that they are also serious about business. After investing billions of dollars in upgrading their convention centers and hotels, these South Florida cities want planners to know that they have what it takes to make meetings a success. “With new hotel and convention center products now available, as well as additional plans in development, there has never been a more exciting time for Florida and the meetings industry,” says Lily Etemadi, manager of meetings and travel trade at Visit Florida. Etemadi says 105 million visitors came to the state in 2015 from international and domestic markets, reflecting five years of consecutive growth. While the majority was leisure travelers, “data shows that out of the 83.2 million domestic visitors in 2014, over 4 million people were in Florida for meetings and conferences,” Etemadi says. “Are we celebrating that accomplishment? Yes, of course. But we’re not resting. Now is the time to keep the momentum going and promote Florida’s diverse product.” With a parade of impressive new hotels, significant improvements to existing properties and a massive investment in conference facilities, South Florida is aiming to raise its profile as one of the premier meeting destinations in the country. It is clear that South Florida is far more than simply a vacation spot.

Fort Lauderdale

margaritavilleMargaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort

More than $704 million in new hotel development is currently underway in Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County, with more than 1,000 new hotel rooms entering the market over the next two years. Another $222 million-plus in improvements is earmarked for existing hotels.

According to Christine Roberts-Tascione, vice president for group sales for Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, most of the development has been in upscale hotels that cater to meetings. “Existing hotels are putting millions back into iconic resorts. The Diplomat, one of our flagship properties, has put $100 million into a redo. That hotel’s business is 85 percent meetings and conventions,” she says. In 2015, the destination enjoyed an 81 percent year-round occupancy rate. Contributing factors include the lovely weather; easy accessibility, with Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport (FLL) continuing to expand; general affordability; low taxes (bed and sales tax combined are 11 percent); and a diversity of AAA Diamond-rated hotels. Among the most prominent lodging developments are the $500 million Auberge Beach Residences & Spa (opening 2017), $200 million Four Seasons Hotel & Private Residences (opening 2018) and $40 million Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach, set to open later this year.

10MeliaCostaHollywoodBeach-SteakRestaurantMelia Costa Hollywood Beach Resort

In Hollywood, the $147 million Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort opened in September, the $180 million Melia Costa Hollywood Beach Resort will open in 2016 and the $240 million Hyde Resort & Residences will open in phases through 2018.

17_metropica_final_view_2Rendering of Metropica, Fort Lauderdale

In addition to these openings are mega developments, including the $1 billion Metropica development; a $750 million development at the Galleria at Fort Lauderdale; and, of special interest to planners, a $600 million convention center hotel and facility expansion. Planners who want the lowdown on the Greater Fort Lauderdale region are advised to contact the CVB. “We can offer the complete experience that we know is here as far as dining, arts, culture and shopping,” Roberts-Tascione says.

Miami

miami-beach-convention-centerMiami Beach Convention Center rendering

“Miami is going through a meetings renaissance,” says Rolando Aedo, executive vice president of Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We have always been known as a leisure destination that is a perfect combination of the tropical and the cosmopolitan. But we have a long history of hosting major meetings, and soon we will be able to offer a superior meetings package with the reinvention of the Miami Beach Convention Center.” In addition, Aedo says, “We will be making more dates available for planners. While we have long hosted consumer auto and antique shows, we will now give top priority to planners.” Miami Beach Convention Center is scheduled to complete its $615 million renovation in 2018. It will offer 500,000 sq. ft. of contiguous exhibit space, a 60,000-square-foot grand ballroom, three 20,000-square-foot junior ballrooms and 59,000 sq. ft. of breakout meeting spaces. In a blow to tourism officials, a proposal for an 800-room headquarter hotel connected to the convention center was narrowly defeated March 15. While 54 percent of voters favored the issue, the project required a 60 percent threshold to approve leasing public land in the convention center district. Aedo is optimistic that city officials will come up with an alternative proposal in time for a November vote, and the hope is to unveil a hotel in 2019 that is smaller than the proposed 25-story project, but would still contain 800 guest rooms. Hotel development is strong in other parts of the city. “We added more than 1,900 rooms in 2015, and another 2,500 this year; and [will have added] 10,000, all told, by 2019,” Aedo says. Several will be transformational, such as the massive Brickell City Centre in the financial district, where East Hotel is opening this spring. It will join a cluster of luxury hotels in the neighborhood, all connected by the city’s Metromover light rail. Also, Faena, an Argentinian company, is opening a property in the heart of Miami Beach that will be part of a cultural campus. Miami Worldcenter will open downtown in 2018. The 10-block, mixed-use development will include residential, hospitality and retail space. The project will feature the 1,800-room Marriott Marquis World Convention Center Hotel, boasting resort amenities and 600,000 sq. ft. of meeting, exhibition and convention space.

trump-national-doral-miamiTrump National Doral, Miami

Existing hotels are making significant investments. Perhaps the most prestigious is Trump National Doral Miami, an iconic 800-acre property the Trump organization purchased in 2012 with the intention to transform it into the greatest golf resort in the United States. A $250 million investment has resulted in a dramatic restoration, and the property is now welcoming and pampering guests with signature service. The Anglers on South Beach Miami, a Kimpton Hotel, is building a five-story, 85-room addition to the original 45-suite property. “With neighborhoods like Little Havana and Little Haiti offering cultural and heritage tourism, you have a walkable city where meeting attendees can just walk out of their hotel and go to a restaurant or sporting event right nearby,” says Eric Jellson, area director of marketing and strategy for Kimpton in Florida.

The Palm Beaches

HiltonWestPalmBeach_Pool_HRHilton West Palm Beach

The Palm Beaches is home to more than 1 million sq. ft. of meeting space in more than 200 hotels—18 of which have more than 5,000 sq. ft. of meeting space each—as well as Palm Beach County Convention Center. Kelly Cavers, senior vice president of group sales for Discover The Palm Beaches, notes that the latest excitement on the meetings front is the new Hilton West Palm Beach, which opened in January. “It’s a 400-room hotel attached to the convention center. That gives us a package of over 1,000 rooms within walking distance of the center, and provides additional opportunities in short-term corporate business,” she says.

mandarin-orientalMandarin Oriental, The Palm Beaches

There’s more to come, with more than 1,000 guest rooms expected to open in 2016, and the arrival of a Mandarin Oriental, a Canopy (Hilton’s’ new collection) and a Renaissance in 2017.

the-brazilian-courtThe Brazilian Court Hotel, Palm Beach

Meanwhile, existing hotels continue to make improvements. The Brazilian Court Hotel, ideal for executive board meetings, recently renovated its conservatory, ballroom and restaurant. The award-winning Cafe Boulud Palm Beach features an expanded and relocated bar, as well as an exciting new menu featuring the French cuisine Chef Daniel Boulud is known for, with a lighter touch. The Breakers Palm Beach, an oceanfront property, features 80,000 sq. ft. of flexible event space and Flagler Club, an ultraluxe 25-room boutique hotel within the resort that opened in late 2015. Another popular property is PGA National Resort & Spa, which recently underwent a $100 million renovation. It features 39,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, in addition to five championship golf courses. Stacy Lee, director of sales and marketing at the all-suite Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Resort & Spa, notes that all the meeting space has been recently redone and most guest rooms have been refurbished. Cavers points out that although the region is the golf capital of Florida, it offers more than 200 other cultural attractions. “There are so many opportunities to include something outside the planned meeting activities,” she says. Lee agrees: “We have so much going on in Palm Beach—everything from scuba diving to yachting and fishing.”

Bottom Line

If your impression of South Florida is that it is simply a vacation destination, it’s time to take another look at this dynamically evolving region. For meetings, it is offering a warmer welcome than ever.

flamingo_CMYKCelebrating Diversity

South Florida has long been a pioneer in reaching out to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) market. Richard Gray, managing director for Greater Fort Lauderdale’s Convention & Visitors Bureau’s LGBT department, says the bureau launched its first program in 1996, when it did not even use the word “gay” but substituted “rainbow” because of fear of backlash. Fort Lauderdale was a natural place for the initiative because at one time it had 40 “gay” hotels. Gray, a hotelier himself, was then liaison to the gay tourism industry. Gray now heads what may be the first full-time CVB department targeting LGBT communities. Perhaps for this reason, the city has attracted major conferences, including the Lesbian and Gay Chamber of Commerce, gay sports groups and others. In another first, the CVB commissioned a survey of transgender travelers in North America in 2014, with the goal of identifying the travel motivations, needs and priorities of the market. The survey provided insight as to how the CVB could communicate appropriately with transgender travelers and deliver a sensitive and authentic welcoming experience that includes providing training to the local community. In response, a designated landing page for trans travelers was created on the website (sunny.org). Discover The Palm Beaches (DTPB), the official tourism marketing corporation for the area, is reaching out to the LGBT market in a new series of ads. In December 2015, a representative of DTPB attended a conference on LGBT tourism and hospitality presented by San Francisco-based Community Marketing & Insights to learn how destinations can increase visitation from the LGBT market. “Our county is the geographic size of a state, and, as such, it offers the widest diversity of best-in-class travel experiences in the state of Florida,” says Jorge Pesquera, president and CEO for DTPB. “Coincidentally, that diversity is mirrored in the makeup of our population, and it’s a good reason why we want to showcase that our destination is inclusive for all visitors. We want everyone to feel completely welcome.” Greater Miami CVB staff member George Neary acts as a liaison to the LGBT community. “We also have a unique partnership with the Miami-Dade Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, including traveling to trade shows together,” says Rolando Aedo, Greater Miami CVB executive vice president. The chamber and CVB co-published the comprehensive gay and lesbian travel guide, Pride Celebrated Daily. The LGBT Visitor Center in Miami’s South Beach, said to be the first in the nation, can assist with dining and attraction recommendations, and reservations. In addition, the chamber offers a Pink Flamingo Certification (pictured)for businesses that guarantee a welcoming space for LGBT travelers.

Major Meeting Venues

Fort Lauderdale

Diplomat Resort & Spa AAA Four Diamond 998-room resort on a barrier island in Hollywood; recently completed major renovation; 209,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor meeting space, including 50,000-square-foot Great Hall. Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort On a stretch of private beach; 650 guest rooms and suites; 100,000 sq. ft. of newly renovated indoor and outdoor event space; creative breakout sessions range from Beach Olympics to Survivor Obstacle Course. Hilton Fort Lauderdale Marina FortLauderdaleMarina02_HR Contemporary property on Intracoastal Waterway, close to Las Olas Boulevard; serviced by water taxi; 589 guest rooms; 21,300 sq. ft. of meeting space. Hyatt Regency Pier Sixty-Six Luxury property set on marina 5 miles from Fort Lauderdale International Airport; 30,000 sq. ft. of event space; 384 guest rooms; three-pool complex; tennis; fitness center. Margaritaville Hollywood Beach Resort Inspired by Jimmy Buffett; opened September 2015 on Hollywood Beach; 30,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space, including 10,000-square-foot ballroom; 349 guest rooms; eight dining options. Renaissance Fort Lauderdale Cruise Port Hotel Upscale hotel near Port Everglades; 225 guest rooms and 11 suites; fitness center; tropical pool; 10,000 sq. ft. of versatile event space.

Miami

Doubletree by Hilton Hotel Miami Airport & Convention Center Adjacent to Miami International Airport; 334 guest rooms; 172,000 sq. ft. of meeting, conference and trade show space, including 29,000-square-foot ballroom; accommodates groups of up to 6,000. Epic Miami, A Kimpton Hotel Playful, urbane property; views of Biscayne Bay and Atlantic Ocean; 411 guest rooms; 31,000 sq. ft. of indoor and outdoor event space; 16th-floor pool terrace with two infinity pools; Exhale Spa. Fontainebleau Miami Beach fountainbleau Iconic luxe hotel with spectacular oceanfront location; 1,504 guest rooms; 107,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; seven restaurants, including two by celebrity chefs Michael Mina and Scott Conant. JW Marriott Marquis Miami Sophisticated downtown property near Art Deco district; 313 guest rooms; 80,000 sq. ft. of meeting space; golf school; indoor tennis court; 10,000-square-foot, NBA-approved basketball court. Loews Miami Beach Hotel Modern property in the heart of South Beach; 790 guest rooms; 65,000 sq. ft. of function space; spa; fitness center; free Wi-Fi. Miami Beach Convention Center Historic South Beach property; undergoing a $615 million renovation to be completed in 2018; LEED-certified design with emphasis on ocean elements and natural lighting; more than 1 million sq. ft. of event space. Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach Art Deco jewel; within walking distance of Miami Convention Center; received $150 million renovation in 2014; 200 guest rooms; 15,000 sq. ft. of event space. Trump National Doral Miami Opulent, fully renovated 800-acre golf resort; 643 guest rooms; 175,000 sq. ft. of event space, including 24,000-square-foot Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom; premier dining.

Palm Beach

Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa Lush AAA Five Diamond resort in Manalapan; 309 guest rooms; more than 30,000 sq. ft. of event space; spa; pools; free Wi-Fi. Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach Luxurious oceanfront resort; 210 guest rooms, with private balconies; 22,012 sq. ft. of adaptable meeting space; AAA Five Diamond rated restaurant; pool; tennis; full-service spa; fitness center and salon. Hilton West Palm Beach New 400-room property; connected to Palm Beach County Convention Center; 24,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including 13,350-square-foot Oceana Ballroom; 2,400 sq. ft. of lawn space for events. Palm Beach County Convention Center Architecturally striking 350,000-square-foot facility; 100,000-square-foot exhibit hall; 22,000-square-foot ballroom; 21,000 sq. ft. of flexible breakout space, divisible into 19 rooms. Palm Beach Marriott Singer Island Beach Resort & Spa 193-suite beachfront property on private beach on Singer Island; 3,600 sq. ft. of indoor function space; 23,850 sq. ft. of outdoor meeting space. PGA National Resort & Spa Luxurious golf resort recently completed $100 million renovation; 39,000 sq. ft. of meeting space, including two ballrooms; unique outdoor venues; five championship golf courses; 397 guest rooms. The Brazilian Court Hotel AAA Four Diamond property is a historic landmark; 80 elegant suites; 3,850 sq. ft. of flexible meeting space; renowned restaurant run by famed French chef Daniel Boulud. The Breakers Palm Beach TheBreakers_MediterraneanBallroom Iconic oceanfront property with private beach; 540 guest rooms; eight restaurants; 36 holes of golf; 80,000 sq. ft. of flexible event space; Flagler Club, an ultraluxe 25-room boutique hotel within the resort, opened in late 2015. West Palm Beach Marriott Conveniently located near Palm Beach Convention Center; 352 newly renovated guest rooms and suites; 12 meeting rooms; 18,918 sq. ft. of total meeting space; Regency Ballroom holds up to 750 attendees.
Harvey Chipkin is a freelance writer who has been covering the hospitality and meetings industry for many years.